AI-powered Mayflower docks in Plymouth


The robot ship encountered several setbacks on its way across the Atlantic.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship arrives in Plymouth Harbor alongside a replica of the original ship. Jonathan Wiggs / Boston Globe

On Thursday, history repeated itself on the shores of Plymouth. In 1620, English pilgrims arrived in North America on the Mayflower. Now, 402 years later, another ship of that name made its way to the coast of Massachusetts. The first Mayflower had more than 100 people on board, the modern version had zero.

The autonomous ship Mayflower, designed by nautical research firm Promare and IBM, completed its journey from England almost entirely without human assistance. Instead, artificial intelligence commanded the ship, which was equipped with numerous cameras and sensors. The technology on board was used to navigate the Atlantic as well as to collect valuable scientific data.

A boat from Sea Tow South Shore of Marshfield has carried the robot ship the last 20 miles of its journey to comply with US Coast Guard rules for unmanned ships, The Associated Press reported† It was docked in Plymouth Harbor near a replica of the original Mayflower.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship did not have an easy journey and suffered numerous setbacks. Built in 2020 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ maiden voyage to America, the new ship was not ready to depart until June 2021. Several technical problems plagued the solar-powered ship’s first attempt to cross the ocean, and it was forced to return to its home port of Plymouth, England.

In April of this year, The Mayflower Autonomous Ship went back to sea, but a generator problem forced scientists to divert the ship to the Portuguese Azores Islands. After the necessary repairs were made, the ship set out for Halifax, Nova Scotia earlier this month. In these cases, scientists communicated with the onboard AI to provide the ship with new coordinates. The ship’s technology then used real-time data to find its own way to the new destinations.

The ship’s AI captain can visually scan for hazards on the horizon and decipher meteorological data to predict dangerous storms. It was also able to work independently if needed, without connectivity or remote control. Once the ship was back in service, the data was synced to the cloud to keep researchers informed.

While the Mayflower Autonomous Ship project could pave the way for more unmanned ships to explore the world’s oceans, its AI technology could also help lead to breakthroughs in freight transportation, financial planning and supply chain management, according to The Boston Globe

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